May 16, 2006

Differentiated Nonsense

Differentiated Instruction is all the rage with our faddish educators. It's the new buzzword in education. It's also a load of unproven bunk.

The idea (I'll resist the strong temptation to put the word idea in scare quotes for the time being) is that teachers will tailor (or differentiate if you will) their instruction to the individual needs of each student. And by doing so, the theory goes, the students will learn more.

But is there any empirical support for such a theory. Let's set the wayback machine to 1986 and listen to the conclusion set forth by James Brophy in a paper he presented that year:
Research has turned up very little evidence suggesting the need for qualitatively different forms of instruction for students who differ in aptitude, achievement levels, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or learning style.
Nothing has changed in the intervening two decades to change that conclusion. In fact, by 1986 we already knew of one instructional program which was effective and which taught each student the exact same material. Engelmann, the creator of that program, clarifies Brophy's conclusion and how it relates to instructional design:
Some kids will need more practice exercises than others. Some will take more time to accumulate the skills needed to enter a particular program. But if the program does an effective job of communicating with the kids, showing exactly what to do and providing adequate practice for the kid who needs more practice, the program is a good program for all kids who have the skill assumed at the beginning of the program.
In 2006, most educators would disagree vehemently that learning styles and individual differences have a relatively minor effect on kids' academic performance. They've turned their classrooms into a chaotic mess by trying to provide different instruction to each kid.

In engineering, we call this a kludge--an inelegant solution to a problem. To make matters worse, the problem is self imposed. The problem is heterogeneous grouping of students. Throw all the kids into the same classroom and try to teach them the same stuff. Apparently, it doesn't work too well. Duh.

So, instead of scrapping the whole idea of heterogeneous grouping and going back to (flexible) homogeneous grouping, educators, instead of admitting wrong doing, are attempting to fix the problem by applying a differentiated instruction band-aid. This let's them keep on doing what they've always been doing by making superficial changes.

I'm surprised they didn't call it balanced grouping.

Update: I found this post at JIS Topics that discusses their school's recent adoption of Differentiated Instruction.

20 comments:

Instructivist said...

"Learning styles" is pure educationist piffle.

The most common "learning style" I've encountered is apathy, laziness, not paying attention, dreadful work habits, goofing off...

Instructivist said...

"To make matters worse, the problem is self imposed. The problem is heterogeneous grouping of students. Throw all the kids into the same classroom and try to teach them the same stuff. Apparently, it doesn't work to well. Duh."

That's a very good point!

Heterogeneous grouping is one of the most tenacious educationist dogmas. As a general rule one can say that everyting that makes sense -- like ability grouping, a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum, explicit instruction and so on -- is adamantly opposed by educationist.

I still don't know if the differentiation being advocated is supposed to mean that abler students should be taught more demanding stuff (I doubt it), or is it strictly limited to so-called "learning styles."

KDeRosa said...

I think it mostly involves dumbing down the curriculum for the lower performers and giving phony enrichment to the higher performers.

SteveH said...

"The most common "learning style" I've encountered is apathy, laziness, not paying attention, dreadful work habits, goofing off... "

Hee, Hee, Hee. Except when it comes to video games. I see amazing concentration. I guess that video games are always developmentally appropriate.

SteveH said...

"To make matters worse, the problem is self imposed. The problem is heterogeneous grouping of students. Throw all the kids into the same classroom and try to teach them the same stuff. Apparently, it doesn't work to well. Duh."

Double Duh! This is exactly what is going on at our public schools. Differentiated Instruction is a method that allows them to implement full-inclusion (tracking by age). Actually, they started with full-inclusion and then they had to come up with a way to help the more willing or able students. Voila! Differentiated Instruction.

However, there are still a "few" bugs. The first is that it's been many years since they started and they really haven't implemented much of anything. (The school says that they need more money for training.) I talked with a school committee member (also a parent) who says that I cannot go into the school and discuss setting up something like an IEP plan for my son. OK, so Differentiated Instruction is not some formal, individualized curriculum plan. It's also up to the individual teacher. In the end, it ends up as only enrichment homework. BY DEFINITION, it does not allow for acceleration. It really is a lot of pie-in-the-sky garbage, but it works great at placating many parents.

Actually, one idea of differentiated instruction is to teach in such a way that kids of all levels will get something out of a lesson. It's not just about learning styles. When my son was in Kindergarten, the teacher explained it this way. When she had a large print story on the wall, the more advanced kids could read most or all of the words while the lowest level kids might be able to figure out a word here or there. Forgetting the fact that this is a bad way to teach (?) reading, it just did not make any sense. If you want real heterogeneous grouping of students and proper differentiated instruction, then there will have to be a lot of individual work where the kids advance at their own pace. However, the whole philosophical reason for differentiated instruction is to (somehow) make heterogeneous group learning work. All the little darlings are equal - they just learn differently.

One story I heard was that when our schools sent home a questionnaire asking parents about their kids' learning styles, one parent wrote back and said "fast".

Anonymous said...

is there any empirical support that teachers actually implement the theory?

My observation is as SteveH: that teachers do what is necessary: think of children as intellectually 1. Fast, 2. Medium, or 3. Slow. Three speeds is all a teacher can mentally handle in organizing his or her instruction of thirty children day to day. So to differentiate they do what they have always done: give extra unsupervised work to the Fast kids, and give one-on-one attention to the Slow kids.

Doesn't "differentiated" sound so much better? This all about rhetoric to manage parent perceptions and concerns about the loss of ability grouping.

But you guys knew that.

Don't waste your time arguing about whether the theory is sound. Find out if an implementation outside of "Fast, Medium, Slow" really exists or not.

I enjoy your blog!

BeckyC

Catherine Johnson said...

Some kids will need more practice exercises than others. Some will take more time to accumulate the skills needed to enter a particular program. But if the program does an effective job of communicating with the kids, showing exactly what to do and providing adequate practice for the kid who needs more practice, the program is a good program for all kids who have the skill assumed at the beginning of the program.

Beatufiul.

Catherine Johnson said...

oops

I meant, beautiful

sheesh

Catherine Johnson said...

I think it mostly involves dumbing down the curriculum for the lower performers and giving phony enrichment to the higher performers.

I'm on a quest to find out what "enrichment" means in practice.

So far I'm thinking:

- algebra problems given to kids who don't know algebra

- heavy reliance on Math Olympiad problems (which are, at this age, means algebra problems given to kids who don't know algebra)

- workbooks from Prufrock Press (more algebra problems given to kids who don't know algebra)

- determining the height of a telephone pole based on the height of your shadow

- tesselations

Catherine Johnson said...

Becky is right, based in our experience.

Christopher's 5th grade teacher told us that all math classes, universally (including the accelerated classes) had 3 groups.

The top group was kids who never needed reteaching.

She's fairly experienced, and she said every class breaks down this way.

This 3-part grouping was what caused her to support Christopher's transfer to Phase 4. He was one of the kids in her class who never needed reteaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

I cannot go into the school and discuss setting up something like an IEP plan for my son. OK, so Differentiated Instruction is not some formal, individualized curriculum plan.

we're going to be pushing on this

if we're going to have differentiated instruction, let's have differentiated instruction

i've got two kids on IEPs; why can't Christopher have an individual plan?

Catherine Johnson said...

BY DEFINITION, it does not allow for acceleration.

Yes.

SteveH said...

"I'm on a quest to find out what "enrichment" means in practice."

Anything but acceleration.

In practice, some teachers might allow some kids to go ahead on their own. Since differentiated instruction is not well-defined, I have heard that some teachers do what they think is best. This is better than nothing, but it is no replacement for a proper curriculum and process.

Did you ever notice that parental talk of public schools focuses a lot on which teacher a child has? I talked with a friend this past weekend and she didn't talk about how good the school was. She talked about how her son had some great teachers. Of course, this doesn't solve the our Algebra Lite dead end in 8th grade.

Anonymous said...

"Anything but acceleration"

...is right. Since they are using some form of differentiated instruction already for the high performers/gifted that are in their class (who could potentially be 1-2 years ahead of the pack), but they have to also deal with the low performers/LD (who are potentially 1-2 years behind the pack), why, they're already covering a wide span of ability. The last thing they want to look at is acceleration. They'd rather keep that airplane in the air in a holding pattern.

I think many teachers are starting to believe that differentiated instruction takes care of any need for acceleration because of the wide swath of ability in their classroom that they believe they are already teaching.

The avoidance of acceleration, particularly in math, seems short-sighted to me. It probably wouldn't be so bad if the curriculum choice wasn't so slow, but alas, that isn't the case in many places. What we appear to have is a new branch of the old "we are all the same" ideology that permeates so much of education today.

SusanS

Laura said...

I will say this, though. While "differentiation" has been a thorn in my planning side, and I have dabbled in it halfheartedly for the last three years, I recently tried offering a differentiated project in earnest. I had ripped it off from another teacher and adapted the project to my topic. There were upwards of 30 options divided out by multiple intelligences--or learning styles, if you will. Each student got to choose the one that suited him or her best. And do you know what? The involvement and turn-in rate went up in the usually apathetic class from less than half to more like 3/4. That's about 13 extra students participating that did almost nothing before! And even the ones who did not turn in the project started, which was more than they did on many projects.

Perhaps choice was the motivator here, but I've offered choices in the past to much less resounding results. I think they liked identifying themselves by style, that it gave them, well, a sense of identity.

How do you feel about choice as a motivator?

SteveH said...

"How do you feel about choice as a motivator?"

Choice can be a great motivator for individual projects. However, if it is choice in level of effort or complexity, then I doubt that many kids would opt for those choices. If Differentiated Instruction (er, Learning) is just about learning styles, then isn't that what a good teacher does anyways, without calling it by some formal name?

"The involvement and turn-in rate went up in the usually apathetic class from less than half to more like 3/4."

This made me wince. My first reaction was why is it usual for only half the students to hand in their work? It's nice to do things that motivate the students, but lack of that is no excuse for not handing in work. There seems to be other, bigger problems here.

Differentiated Instruction is not well defined. Is it or is it not just about learning styles. Is it or is it not about instruction. Does it or does it not allow for acceleration of material. Schools will talk about learning styles and completely ignore different ability levels.

All of the group-oriented or teacher led differentiation based on ability level (not learning styles) I have seen is pretty lame. You can't have ability differentiation in mixed-ability groupings. At best, schools set aside a little time (and for homework) for individual enrichment work. No one ever talks about Differentiated Instruction in homogeneous ability groupings.

If one had a proper grade-by-grade curriculum and wanted to add differentiation on top of that, then I could perhaps come up with some good ideas. However, Differentiated Instruction is a vehicle to somehow make full-inclusion, group learning, age tracking work. It's a vehicle for progressive education.

Differentiation can be a great educational tool, but that is not what is going on here.

KDeRosa said...

What if you gave a student a choice about learning critcal foundation skills, like some letter sounds or simple addition and he chose not to learn them.

Laura said...

The choice is not what they learn but how they are assessed, at least in the high school Spanish classroom. In the high school English classroom, they might get to choose among books.

I'm sorry that the statistics of my classroom turn-in rates made you wince. Imagine what they do to me. There is CLEARly a larger motivational problem.

To go along with a later post, I largely teach "Valentines." The whole area is rural and treading the line of depression, it seems. The whole community focus is short-term, not what they'll do after they can't hang dry wall anymore or they get busted for dealing.

That, I feel, is a problem that starts at home and that 6 hours a day in school cannot remedy.

KDeRosa said...

There is CLEARly a larger motivational problem.

Which is mostly the elementary school's fault. I bet most of them came to you unmotivated and far behind.

That, I feel, is a problem that starts at home and that 6 hours a day in school cannot remedy.

I disagree. I think it's a problem that may have started at home before K. But most of these kids could have been brought up to grade level by the end ok K with effective instruction. Most likely they weren't and they were then permitted to continue to fail up until the day you got them. These kids may not be adequately educated, but they're not stupid either. They are aware that college isn't in the cards for them; they're just doing time now, waiting to get out.

Manny said...

Differentiated instruction is a farce and a vivid proof of a failing educational system created by administrators and “theorists” who want to sell books with their failing principles. When students are respectful and attentive (unless there is a neurological impairment) most strategies are effective. Ever since classroom outsiders started trying to reinvent the wheel, results have been worse. Under the pressure of tests scores and percentages students are promoted from grade to grade without enough academic level. Most differentiated instruction supporters state that individuals are different! A complete absurd statement! Then, not all individuals can listen to a speech from a politician and be able to comprehend it, because the speaker might not be using visual aids! Really? (It might be what the type of individuals we are creating). Theorists are limiting the students’ learning skills and putting teachers in a position to use ineffective principles that deny brain processes and human nature.